Saturday, November 26, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

PG&E pays $55 million to avoid criminal penalties in two wildfires

The settlements actually give counties better oversight of PG&E in future wildfires its equipment may spark than any criminal prosecution would have.

(CN) — Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to pay $55 million to settle claims related to its role in sparking two large wildland fires that raged out of control in Northern California in 2019 and 2021.

The company will pay about $20 million to Sonoma County and will avoid criminal penalties related to the Kincade Fire, according to Sonoma County's top prosecutor. 

“Although criminal charges are dismissed, the level of punishment and oversight provided by this judgment is greater than could be achieved against a corporation in criminal court,” said Sonoma County DA Jill Ravitch. “Furthermore, the costs of this oversight, as well as other payments under this judgment, will not be passed on to ratepayers.”

PG&E will have to submit to an independent compliance monitor to ensure the utility takes safety precautions, including updating its equipment and making sure its transmission wires are far enough away from dry brush and tree branches. 

The company will also pay for investigation costs and other factors. 

Also Monday, PG&E also released a settlement with district attorneys from five California counties impacted by the Dixie Fire which obligates the corporation to pay approximately $30 million. 

“The civil judgment allowed more flexibility in demanding changes in PG&E’s safety practices, and to obtain rapid restitution to those who lost homes and property in the Dixie Fire while putting the company on essentially a five-year probation,” the five attorneys general said in a shared statement. 

The district attorneys represent Butte, Plumas, Shasta, Lassen and Tehama counties, all blackened by the Dixie Fire in 2021. The officials said criminal penalties would have been capped at around $400,000 and restitution would have been difficult for those affected by the fires to obtain. 

“The civil contributions, penalties and payouts established for PG&E in the settlement judgment will instead be in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” the attorneys said. 

The Kincade Fire occurred when transmission lines sparked a brush fire near the town of Geyserville in northern Sonoma County. The 78,000-acre fire destroyed hundreds of buildings and prompted thousands of evacuations as it tore through the landscape due to high winds. 

The Dixie Fire, which became the second-largest wildland fire in recorded California history, burned nearly 1 million acres and was the most expensive firefight in American history. 

That blaze, which killed one firefighter, was started when an electrical transmission line contacted a tree branch. PG&E is supposed to perform routine maintenance around its equipment to ensure such occurrences do not happen, but several oversight bodies have found the company neglected those duties in order to increase profits. 

The company said Monday that it was committed to restoring its reputation by greatly enhancing wildfire precautions throughout its network. 

“We are committed to doing our part, and we look forward to a long partnership with these communities to make it right and make it safe,” CEO said Patti Poppe said in a statement. “We respect the leadership of the local DAs, welcome the new level of transparency and accountability afforded by these agreements, and look forward to working together for the benefit of the communities we collectively serve.”

Oversight of PG&E will last for five years. 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...